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In Pursuit Of Old Wine: The Beauty and The Danger

By Charles Olken

I have a cellarful of old wine. I like to think of those bottles from the 1970s and the 1980s, the detritus of what formed by collection, as “a few bucks and some electricity”. I don’t buy and sell them. They sit there in the dark and give me both wonderful memories as well as special opportunities.

And therein lies the mystery, the unknowns of wine collecting—because some of those once and former discoveries will emerge with brilliant results and others turn out to be too tired for anything but curiosity. Truth be told, most fit somewhere in the middle. Neither brilliant nor dead as a doornail.

In the past week, I have been lucky enough to enjoy two meals that allowed me to search the back forty of my cellar and to pull out aged bottles. I hate to tell you this, but the really old bottles were, in fact, really old, and the middle aged bottles were a heck of a lot better. I probably knew that from the outset of course.

Some of the bottles chosen for the first of the two dinners were intentionally among the oldest in the cellar. Blame it on Steve Eliot, my writing compatriot here at CGCW. He secured us a table at the closing ceremonies for one of our favorite restaurants, the Bay Wolf in Oakland, which is closing its doors after forty years so its owners, now in their seventies, can sail off into the sunset and travel the world. Who can blame them?

I say “blame Steve” because he and I are always curious about the “old, moldies”, as we call them, in our cellars, and this dinner, shared with one other couple of our era and collecting habits, seemed just the time to amuse Steve with my collectables. The Bay Wolf was founded in 1975 and has been the scene of more Olken and Connoisseurs’ Guide events than all the other restaurants in the Bay Area combined.

So, “1975” was the magic word, and since Steve is a relative baby, his collection does not extend back into the 1970s. Thus, not only do I blame Steve, but I cannot escape much of the blame either. After all, I collected all those 75s and let them languish in the dark for four decades in the hopes that more than ashes would emerge. Along the way, I did drink up most of them so there is solace in that.

I will spare you the gory details but suffice it to say the 1975 Chalone Chenin Blanc had given up the ghost long ago, and 1987 Chalone Chenin, brought along in the full expectation that the 75 would not have held up, was pretty much on its last legs. For curiosity hunters like Steve and myself, all was not lost, but great pleasure, even in the midst of curiosity, was not delivered. 1975 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir was at least considerably better, and it had retained enough fruit that it still had that ripe cherry, hint of berry that Mr. Swan was able to bring out of the grape.

We did also fair reasonably well with a 1982 Deutz Cuvée William Champagne that was suitably toasty and a tad dry but full of the aged character that some folks, us included, enjoy about well-aged bubbly. I did “score” each of the wines as a way of trying to suggest its hedonistic returns, and I used two scales. One score was for the quality of the wine as wine, and one was for its value on the “curiosity scale”. With older wines, it is important to remember that they are “memories” and not likely to have the vitality of youth. Yet they are studies in ageworthiness, and memories are not such bad things after all.

The Deutz scored 95 as a curiosity, but 89 as wine. The 75 Chenin rated at a generous 82 for wine and equally generous 88 as a curiosity—probably too high on both counts, but, hey, they were my wines after all. The 87 Chenin was worth 87 for drinking, not too shabby for a three-decade old version of that grape, and thus 90 for the memories and the Swan Pinot got all the way up to 95 on the curiosity scale but 90 or a tad less as wine. I will admit that I love these older bottles and the discovery they allow thus my reactions do tend to be optimistic.

Which brings me to last night. College roommate in town, and the only one of that collegiate crew who has turned out to be a true foodie. So we took ourselves off to Restaurant Michael Mina in San Francisco and brought along two wines, each of which was straight out superb and so good that we just smiled at our good fortune. I will admit that the wines were “safe” choices, and intentionally so after our flirtations with the very old wines at the Bay Wolf.

We started with 1998 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and closed with 2006 Siduri Sonaterra Pinot Noir. Both wines had, within the half dozen years or so, earned multiple stars in CGCW, and the reasons why were so deliciously evident last night. Both had matured and yet, if one was looking for maturity to still have clear youthful energy as well as those extra layers of richness and completeness that is the object of cellar aging, then these wines had those qualities in spades.

One obvious lesson, which drove the selections beforehand last night and turned out to be reinforced again, is that “the older the wine, the bigger the crap shoot”. And while some very old wines, meaning several decades, can be incredibly rewarding (in the last few years, 1975 Swan Zinfandel, 1968 and 1970 Beaulieu Georges de Latour Cabernet), the odds are not long. On the other hand, the wines we had last night were almost certain to have retained their youthful good looks and they did.

I am glad to have had a chance to pull out the really old and risky bottles at the Bay Wolf with a group that would have curiosity about them, but, it was clear that the most rewardingly tasty wines of the week were those last night that were just reaching middle-aged beauty.

A couple of final words about the restaurants. The Bay Wolf will be very much missed. It is not that we ate there every other month—there are too many lovely places in the Bay Area to stick to just one—but it is part and parcel of so many good times in my family’s celebrations and CGCW celebrations that it has become a part of us. Michael Mina is one of several very fine restaurants in the San Francisco. I could name ten favorites (La Folie, AQ, Acquerello, Chez Panisse among them) that are its rival. Yet, with good company and good wines, the meal last night was memorable in almost every way, including the food and the service. Yes, we are not talking three Michelin stars here, but the quality, pacing, attention to detail rivalled and, for me, exceeded the very high standards we found recently in one-star Parisian restaurants like Ze Kitchen Galerie. That high praise is meant as a recommendation—whether or not you take very old wine with you.

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